A long drive in the countryside to view fall colors is a time-honored tradition. But sometimes you just have to pull over and bathe yourself in those fiery reds, oranges and golds. Thus, my Top 5 for the best color tours in the Great Lakes State, each paired with a best short hike:
M-22. This state highway is a great fall color tour, especially the 46-mile stretch from Frankfort to Leland, which is practically lined with trailheads (sleepingbeardunes.com). Pack a lunch and then hike Empire Bluff Trail, which in less than a mile reaches the edge of a bluff more than 400 feet above Lake Michigan. Here you can sit on a bench and nourish your stomach with a sandwich and your soul with dramatic views of sweeping dunes. Peak colors: Early October.
River Road. This road extends 22 miles along the Au Sable River from M-65 to Oscoda through the heart of Huron National Forest (fs.usda.gov/main/hmnf). It’s lined with so many panoramic overlooks and viewing platforms of the Au Sable Valley it’s been designated a National Scenic Byway by the U.S. Forest Service. Best short trail is the hike to Iargo Springs, a descent of more than 300 steps which leads to springs gurgling into the Au Sable River. Peak colors: Early to mid-October.
M-119. The famed “Tunnel of Trees” follows the lakeshore bluffs of upper Lake Michigan for 28 miles from trendy Harbor Springs to quaint Cross Village. Along the way stop at Thorne Swift Nature Preserve, where 1.5 miles of trails leads you through the woods to the viewing deck of Lake Michigan (landtrust.org). Peak colors: Early October.
Huron River Drive. For a quick color tour in southeast Michigan, follow Huron River Drive 13 miles from Ann Arbor to Dexter (visitannarbor.org). Much of the route is lined by parks and nature preserves. The city of Ann Arbor alone has five including the Bird Hills Nature Area, my top choice for a walk in the woods. In Dexter, cross the Huron River and finish the tour with a jug of fresh apple cider. Peak colors: Late October.
M-28 & M-94: The most noted color tour in the Upper Peninsula is Brockway Mountain Drive along the backbone of the Keweenaw Peninsula. But that’s an awfully long drive from where most of us live. Closer and almost as scenic is the 85-mile loop formed by M-28 and M-94 between Au Train and Marquette (travelmarquettemichigan.com). M-28 hugs Lake Superior while M-94 heads into forest past Laughing Whitefish Falls. The charming cascade is only a half-mile hike, making it the best trail along the loop. Peak colors: Late September to early October.
BLUE “Top 5” columnist Jim DuFresne is an international travel writer and main contributor to MichiganTrailMaps.com.